Review: Nation

November 27, 2009

Nation at the National Theatre

Is it all a load of fantasy?

There are two ways of looking at the production of Nation now showing at the National Theatre. First, you can see it as what it is being advertised as by the National … that of a “spectacular family show”, you can just take it as this, and forget all your pre-concieved ideas of what a good piece of theatre is about. Or you can see it with a critical eye, and look beyond the visual affects and see the chaos that lies beneath.

How does someone take a piece of fantasy and craft it in such a manner that it is relayed in a theatrical sense, without it coming across as sheer nonsense? The National Theatre has actually had quite a good track record for setting new heights in their work of fantasy adaptation, one look at the popular adaptation of the Phillip Pullmans series, ‘His Dark Materials’ that graced the stage and went on a long tour proves that it can be done – and well.

So what went wrong here?

After several days mulling over my thoughts; for this production is not an easy one to digest; it comes in waves of information, in visual delight and a complicated script – I have concluded that perhaps it lies with the actual adaptation of text. Mark Ravenhill, one of our clear playwrights of the 21st century, whose previous work I have applauded time and time again, was given this mammoth task. How do you adapt a Terry Pratchett fantasy novel into a National Theatre “spectacular family show”, or more basic than that, into a working playscript?

Idenity is a big theme in Nation

Ravenhill at times captures the essence of Pratchetts story, with strong notions of what identity is between two different worlds, that of the British Empire and a ‘Barbarian Island’. Of course this is one of the themes running through the play, sorry, I mean ‘spectacle’… yet somehow Ravenhill just doesn’t fulfill the text in such a way that it translates well. It doesn’t bring the true magic of fantasy storytelling to the stage, instead… it brings something that for me, falls flat.

I think it’s safe to say that after the first half there are far too many questions that have been raised, and failed to be answered. Whilst I understand that plots are meant to be developed, it’s almost like Ravenhill has opened a can of worms and hasn’t quite caught them all yet to work into the story/plot.

Of course it’s not just Ravenhill’s writing that lets this show down – the musical interludes and songs are shocking. I’m sorry, but was there any need for the songs? They seemingly attempted to add a flare of musicality to the production, but failed to get anywhere with actors who clearly are not meant to be singers. It was such a shame that some of the ensemble singing wasn’t stronger, hell, there was a big enough cast for it to be!

One form of puppetry in Nation

The devices used in Nation are too extreme and too many, a revolving stage, puppetry, visual affects, projectors and exploding scenery to name but a few. Whilst I understand that part of translating this fantasy world comes across through the visual aspects, there seemed to be no limits on how far the direction was taken with the design. Melly Still the director of Nation really did let her imagination go wild with help from Mark Friend on set design, but has she not learnt to also know when the imagination runs away from logic?

Some of the visual material was fantastic, no denying that – especially that of the underwater video projections which were very stunning (a big thumbs up to Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington, projection designers on this). Equally the way that the boats were represented on large cloth material (although done countless times before), actually brought a fresh burst of creativity to the mix, but this alone can’t bring the performance from the depths of “EEK”.

Emily Taaffe and Gary Carr

The acting was good, but not amazing, with Emily Taaffe as the British castaway figure of Daphne and Gary Carr as Mau the Island new-born Chief leading the production for the best part. Although admittedly I couldn’t quite believe that Taaffe was meant to be playing a 14 year old girl.. I’m sorry but my imagination couldn’t fathom this idea. Other notable praise for ‘good’ acting goes to an ensemble of energetic characters of natives, puppeteers and fine men and women.

Still as director has worked as best she could in this complex plot and miss-matched songs, to create a visually striking performance, but anything beyond this it lacks. It really is a shame. So whilst the National Theatre promote this as ‘family spectacle’ and whilst I’m sure it is enjoyable for children – for those of us who are looking at the National Theatre and thinking you represent our nation’s theatre… might just be disappointed.

Nation runs in the Oliver Theatre and is booking until 28 March 2010, see the National Theatre website for methods of booking.

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Review: The Habit of Art

November 16, 2009

The Habit Of ArtThere is something oddly familiar with Alan Bennett’s new play, The Habit of Art now playing at the National Theatre. It has nothing to do with Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner, directing another of Bennett’s plays, the last being The History Boys at the National again. It has nothing to do with the subject matter either, a look into the relationship and lives of W H Auden and Benjamin Britten.

No, the reason The Habit of Art is so familiar lies in the content of the play, a rehearsal room, the setting for Bennetts new piece. The play is a play within a play, and the play happens to be towards the end of rehearsal period. (Still following?) The Lytteltons stage is thus the rehearsal room, with the bare bones of a set constructed, and slightly furnished. A small kitchen area is on one side of the stage, and on the other a series of desks, chairs, keyboard and scripts.

The lighting is simple, even the design evokes the reaction that this is all too familiar. Any person who works in theatre, or has had the opportunity to sit in a rehearsal room during a rehearsal will see the familiarities here, and it is executed marvelously. The witty banter between the actors, the assistant stage manager running around setting props and prompting lines, yes, this is all too familiar to me.

There is a slight concern then that, because of the setting of the play, that Bennett has excluded a whole sector of his audience who perhaps don’t know the workings of the theatre and the rehearsal room, yet this clearly is not the case. I might have been chuckling to myself at theatre related jokes, but equally these jokes transferred easily to the audience with great reception.

Richard Griffiths is as always on top form in this. Even the subject matter of playing Auden as a sexually driven, yet equally as boring man is done perfectly. I never thought I’d reach the day when I would find it amusing to listen to Griffiths telling of his delights of enjoying a mans genitals and pleasuring him in such a manner as I heard in The Habit of Art.

The storyline of the play (within the play) is an interesting one, and I do say this in a tone of – I’m not quite sure I like it. However, that’s not the point. For the storyline of the play, is actually that of the rehearsal room, it is the breaking out of character to criticise the playwrights words. It’s the getting thrown off your lines because an actor has yet to have their movement blocked for their short monologues.

What is brilliant about The Habit of Art is Bennetts ability to go, yes I am a playwright, I write, but sometimes we don’t always get it right. And yes, there are actors, who just act, how easy that must be! The director disappears, but the show goes on. It is Bennetts sense of understanding the world he is writing for. He openly mocks himself as a playwright by having a playwright as a character within his play, putting the actors off their lines and arguing with rewrites. Yet equally Bennett makes wise comments upon theatre and actors, comparing them to a solider, they are afraid.

There are some other remarkable people to mention in The Habit of Art, pretty much all the actors are strong, funny and play the parts excellently. Frances de la Tour is wonderful, playing the balancing act between the cast and the creatives. The peace maker in the rehearsal room. She is cool and  equally demanding too with her outbursts of “On, go on”, every time the action stops due to casual talking. Alex Jennings plays the role of the composer Benjamin Britten, and whilst he wasn’t someone who greatly stood out for me, his emotional engagement with his story did pluck at my heart strings slightly.

Adrian Scarborough as the biographer Humphrey Carpenter, has some beautifully comic lines, including his exclamation that he is nothing but a “device” in the play. This certainly racked up a few laughs at the National, for most certainly this character is only a device being used by Bennett or rather the playwright in the play to tell the winding stories of Auden and Britten.

It is moments such as this that reminds us once again that Alan Bennett is a master of a playwright, a living monument to all things good about theatre and his ability to write about situations and characters. Witty, heart-warming, and fantastically funny, that is The Habit of Art for me.

The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett is playing at the National Theatre and booking until April 2010. New tickets to be released shortly so check the National Theatre website for details.


Review: Mother Courage and Her Children

November 2, 2009

Mother Courage and Her Children

Mother Courage and Her Children

Mother Courage and Her Children has been built into my nervous system since a young age. Programmed and modified in vigorous lessons at GCSE’s, A Level and Degree level of teaching. Therefore I think it’s fair to say that it was about time that I actually went and saw the Brecht production for myself. As you can imagine, I hold the play quite dear to my heart, and actually rather like the themes that run through it. Nothing beats an epic war spread over many years, and the loss of people to that war. Judging from several reviews of the show already it would appear not everyone likes an epic proportion of a play, and quite a few people were lost to the tragic tale.

Let me set the scene, the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre, a vast stage exposed to the audience, blasts of sound effects and sound scopes echo around the auditorium. Stage managers, actors, scenery, and props are littered everywhere and anywhere. This is the start of a war, and Mother Courage the protagonist of Brechts play leads her cart of war supplies across what we know now as Europe with her three children, from three different fathers. This opening scene is quite dramatic, explosions going off, lights whirling beams around the stage, and Fiona Shaw standing on top of her cart singing an almighty song of war.

The production is going to epic, I could just tell, but the real question is more, did it live up to the epic proportions of the play that Brecht once wrote?

Mother Courage

Fiona Shaw as Mother Courage

What I admire about Deborah Warner’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s, Mother Courage and Her Children, is how true she sticks to some of the Brechtian methods of alienation and distancing of the audiences, at no point is there a cause for emotion when Brecht is around. Huge banners and voice overs announce the start of new scenes and what happens within. “…her honest son dies” – This is what I love about Brecht, the fact you are told beforehand what to expect, and thus when it happens you are absent minded about any form of emotion.

Warner’s direction of Mother Courage for me stays true to the ways of Brecht, even down to the bursting of songs, which are delightfully played by Duke Special and band. Perhaps it’s all a bit theatrical, with the use of hand held microphones, but then once again it reminds us that we’re just watching a show, and as Brecht said: “I don’t want the audience to come into the theatre and hang their minds up with their hats”, or something close to that nonetheless.

Warner has brought the production up to speed rather (despite the three hour running time) with a contemporary feel to the production. It’s something about the staging, the scenery that is erected to symbolise but to not actually fulfill. It’s in the costumes and props, and maybe down to the swearing that is littered in Tony Kushner’s new translation.

Despite all of this, I can’t help feel that there is something missing from Mother Courage and Her Children, it lacks a heart, a keystone that completes the show. It’s as if it is missing a limb that it can’t function without. Don’t get me wrong, there is much to praise in this slightly risky production for the National Theatre, but after 3 hours I wanted more. I wanted full on explosions and blood and guts. I wanted to see the despair of Mother Courage as she loses her last child.

I just wanted more.

From a production with such epic proportions, you would have thought Warner would have pushed the piece beyond the comforts of ‘let’s keep this nice for the audience’.  Alas, that wasn’t the case.

Mother Courage2

Mother Courage and her Daughter

Fiona Shaw plays the lead here, and she does so with compelling conviction. She is rugged, and honest, witty and smart. I actually rather liked her singing, compared with some of the comments I’ve read! Personally I think she makes a fine leading lady and I can’t help but to feel that the pressure was on for her to push this piece constantly forward as she is rarely off the stage during the show. However she does so commendably, and I’d actually rather like to see her in future shows, she is certainly one to watch.

Another person to shine in this production comes from the slightly stupid and forgotten character of Swiss Cheese, played beautifully by Harry Melling. He manages to capture everything possible about this character, from movement, voice and presence. At times I found myself caught in his performance more than I did of Fiona Shaw.. and that’s something!

A note on the length of the production. It has been discussed at length at how long this production of Mother Courage and Her Children is. Yet I approve of the running time, it easily reflects that of the context of the play, being set over a war that lasts years upon years. A war that never truly ends. The length of the production reflects that of the length of the lives of the characters living through a war that never ends.

My advice to people would be to check out the performance, it’s entertaining, fresh and really bold, just don’t expect to be completely drawn into the action and leave bowled over by the magic of theatre, because if anything, Brecht is far from making theatre like this.

A bold and challenging piece that brings the light out of a classic Brecht play.

Mother Courage and Her Children is playing in the Olivier Theatre of the National Theatre until 08 December 2009. Check the National Theatre website for details


Review: War Horse

October 12, 2009
War Horse

War Horse

Does War Horse live up to the hype and five star reviews? Surely a West End transfer, a merchandise stand complete with magnets, t-shirts and mugs, and a storyline to make the hardest of men shed a tear would be worth a praising review from A Younger Theatre? I wish it was true…

War Horse has been critically acclaimed since it touched audiences hearts at the National Theatre last year. The show quickly became sold out, and a highly anticipated West End transfer to the New London Theatre was made earlier this year.

And yet I was rather disappointed by the production.

There is no doubt that the puppets of the horses are crafted with such skill and are equally moved/mastered by extremely skilled puppeteers. The movement within these puppets, and the sheer size of them can be quite difficult to focus on at first.

Like any object manipulated into ‘life’, there is adjustment needed to both accept that there is someone control these bits of materials, and equally when you look beyond the manipulators that what you are seeing is ‘believing’ in the creature itself.

The horses are the closest looking things that we’re going to see of horses galloping around a West End stage anytime soon. They are lifelike, yet equally have a skilled puppet craft applied to them. So the horses are obviously not the problem within War Horse, and if anything, the puppetry within the piece as a whole is what drives the piece along but also gets the audiences into the auditorium in the first place.

What War Horse lacks is that of substance.

The story is a little thin on the ground, with moments that really could have been expanded, and equally moments that could quite have easily been cut. The connection between Joey the horse and it’s owner, the young lad Albert is lovingly nurtured within the production, and becomes a delight to watch. Yet other occassions within the piece I struggled to stifle my yawning. The rambling monologues from the German Captain seemed to drag the production into the depths of history.

War Horse

War Horse

War Horse is clearly a good production, especially with the level of skill from the puppeteers, and a notable performance from Kit Harington as Albert, leading the ensemble piece. Despite the five star reviews, and the hype surrounding War Horse, I failed to connect to the piece. It lacked something for me.

I think if anything it is more a personal connection than stating that this is a downright bad production. After all, one person may love a piece of theatre, and equally their friend may despise it. That is the very nature of arts and opinions. So this time, the National Theatre just didn’t pull it off for me.

Perhaps it goes back to my inability to relate to horses? Having never been up close to one more than once in my life, nor through having any desire to ride one… but surely that wouldn’t put me between what is an outstanding production and one that needs more work?

For me the emotional connection to the story was a start/stop affair. I wanted to enjoy this. I wanted to get lost within the magic of the various uses of puppetry onstage, and I wanted to be caught up in the emotive story of the first world war and the soldiers who lost their lives. But I didn’t, and this for me was the killer of heart and soul for War Horse. Others might have been crying and wiping their eyes at the end, but sadly I was trying not to laugh at whoever awful idea it was of having smoke billowing from either side of the stage and thus making a quarter of the audience blind to the action onstage during the second half.

However this isn’t all negative, and far from it. What Marianne Elliott and Tim Morris as directors have done is direct a show that brings into the main stream theatregoers eyes the use of full scale puppetry of high quality, allowing this artform to be more widely accessed. Also their simple stylistic approach to the play could be worth a note to some over-heavy productions seeking to represent every last bit of life on stage.

War Horse is well worth a visit, and with ticket prices seemingly dropping slightly, its worth spending a night engaging with horses made from an assortment of materials. Is the production child friendly though? Hmm… personally I wouldn’t take a young child along, not with its numerous methods of death and imagery of war wounded soldiers splattered across the stage…

War Horse … the five stars reviews, or the sagging storyline? You decide.

The New London Theatre is playing War Horse and booking until next year, 2010. Tickets can be found on the National Theatre website.


A Wider Coverage: London Theatres

June 24, 2009

I was recently asked by one of my followers on Twitter an interesting question [and for those wishing to, you can follow me here]. She had been debating about theatre’s in London that deserved a wider coverage. Her boyfriend believed that the two most in question were that of the National Theatre and the Royal Court Theatre.

What stuck me as rather odd was that of all the theatre’s, the two chosen were ones that already have a wide coverage, in my opinion.

The National Theatre being our country’s National theatre, the theatre that is meant to represent England and the finest theatre that we have to offer. [Here I’m sure some people are possibly thinking otherwise, and yes I would also agree at times.]

The Royal Court has certainly built it’s name into the theatre history books, with them being one of the leading theatre’s to commission and encourage new writing and who we have to thank for Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill being introduced into the theatre world.

But these theatre’s have their place within our society, within the industry and truly within our hearts, but what about other theatre’s that deserve a wider coverage and appreciation? Perhaps it would be fair to state that all theatre’s deserve more audiences, more money and more praise for the work that is put into them, but this isn’t beneficial for anyone. Therefore after careful consideration I’ve listed a few theatre’s which I believe deserve a wider audience:

Battersea Arts Centre

Battersea Arts Centre

The Battersea Arts Centre [BAC] – Perhaps I’m biased because I truly love this venue. Run by a vibrant team. The BAC is a beautiful grade two listed building that was once Battersea Town Hall. There are multipe rooms and chambers in which a whole variety of performerances take place. What I really appreciate about the BAC is its commitment of delierving a diverse program and scheduling. Even down to the flyers and season brochure, the BAC just screams creativity.  Finally one of the reasons why I truly am taken with this venue is the vast array of opportunities that can be grabbed. The BAC is well known for it’s Scratch Nights where new performers / writers / directors can put on small showings of their work to a willing audience to test-drive the work. Lastly, the BAC’s continual commitment in hosting numerous festivals which bring together some of the most defining contemporary work from around the country into one place: The Burst Festival and The Graduate Festival being the hightlights.

Camdens Peoples Theatre

Camdens Peoples Theatre

The Camdens People’s Theatre [CPT] – There might be a theme building in relation to the theatre’s that I am picking and this can certainly be seen between the BAC and the CPT. Contemporary, new, bold and challenging work seems to be key in these venues and the CPT is great for this. A rather unknown venue when it comes to the grand scheme of things, it features a rather delightful small black box studio. What I love is just how small this venue is, there is a real sense of excitement where new experimental work really finds it home here. The CPT is a place of opportunity for new emerging theatre companies and practitioners to find their ground and allow magic to take place. Another highlight is the Sprint Festival which is currently underway, allowing a whole months worth of experiemental theatre to take to the limelight.

Both the BAC and CPT without a doubt deserve more attention, a wider coverage of audience and appreciation amoungst industry proffessionals and spectators.

What I hope people will appreciate here is that it’s not always the big theatre’s that are funded nationally by huge organisations that deserve constant praise – it’s the smaller, less funded companies that really offer some of the most exciting theatre. These are the theatres that deserve a great appreciation and coverage.

There are many, many more, and it will be interesting to hear your views on which theatre’s you think deserve that little bit more, so do feel to comment or get in contact.

I would even say that ALL fringe based venues and theatres deserve more everything, audiences, money, and so on… So if anything, why not visit one of the small more contemporary theatre places around London? You might just find that you’ve been missing something rather special.

For out of small spaces come some big ideas.

BAC Website – http://www.bac.org.uk/

CPT Website – http://www.cptheatre.co.uk/